Archive for June, 2012

Rafter Purchases HubEdu

Rafter, the new parent company of BookRenter, has announced its first acquisition: HubEdu.com. This addition will expand the suite of tools the company offers bookstores. HubEdu, formerly SwoopThat.com, started as textbook price-comparison tool and quickly transformed into a set of price-comparison, adoption-management, and analytic tools for college bookstores. HubEdu is a direct competitor to Verba Software.

According to a press release regarding the HubEdu acquisition, the Rafter platform will soon offer:

  •  Adoption tools to save faculty time and help students save money by automating adoptions.
  •  Enhanced comparison shopping services to enable stores to monetize the competition and win more business by offering price comparison shopping to their students on their websites and in stores.
  •  More robust pricing and analytics tools to gain insight into market dynamics, with on demand pricing data to help administrators and college stores remain competitive and better manage their suppliers.

This acquisition seems to make a lot of sense in light of the recent rebranding of BookRenter into Rafter and their new mission to provide a single platform for the management of course-material needs for college bookstores. And let us not forget that hubs seem to be where things are headed in the industry. See my recent post on Chegg’s plans to become much more than a rental source.

Ask the Guru – A Letter From Mom on Buying Textbooks for Her Son

I recently received this inquiry from a parent looking to help her son.

“I’m looking to purchase, lease, or rent books for my son who is in New Jersey but I live in Georgia. My husband and I will put the books on our credit card but how much confusion is this going to cause when we want them sent to him? How long will it take for him to get his books and can he get a discount for good grades? He just graduated from with a degree in Addiction Counseling, now he is re-enrolled in another major so as to increase his employment options. What if he keeps the books longer than it says, will he be penalized? What if he finds a cheaper price, will you match it? What if we can send you more books we have or come across? What if he doesn’t know what books he needs until the last minute, can he get them in time for the start of school?” And so on from a very well-intentioned mom overwhelmed by changes in her son’s life and a process about which she knows little and one that is very different from her time in school.

So many times when blogging as a long-time industry insider, one can forget to write about the basics as it seems old hat or redundant. Writers can forget that they are the experts and that basic is relative and not everyone shares the writer’s interests or experience. That said, I want to take a step back, get back to basics, and break this inquiry down to provide answers. Sure, I could reply to the mom who wrote me with questions, but chances are that she’s not the only one who would benefit from the answers. So let’s put it out there for everyone.

Issue: “I’m looking to purchase, lease, or rent books for my son who is in New Jersey but I live in Georgia. My husband and I will put the books on our credit card but how much confusion is this going to cause when we want them sent to our son?”
Guru response: Since most online merchants can handle a situation where the billing address and the shipping address are different, you shouldn’t run into any snags. It is possible, if you order several of your books from a single merchant, that they may contact you to verify the purchase.

Issue: “How long will it take for my son to get his books and can he get a discount for good grades?”
Guru response: When purchasing books online, delivery can take as few as 3-5 days or as many as 7-21. Since this is a big difference, let me explain. First, you have to determine if you are buying from a retailer or a marketplace. Sites such as Amazon (for used books) and Half.com are marketplace sites. This means that they are listing product that is being sold by others and shipping is out of their hands. In some of these cases, the seller can ship the book via Media Mail, which can take 7-21 day (from shipping) to be received. Other cases such as buying a book from Chegg or Textbooks.com direct indicates you are getting the book directly from the merchant and the delivery time can take 4-6 days. Read the details, note the source (including geographic location), choose delivery method wisely. As for the second question: No online merchants offer discounts for good grades but many offer coupons. Use a site like CampusBooks.com (full disclosure: I work for CampusBooks.com) and you can see active coupons for all merchants.

Issue: “What if my son keeps the books longer than it says, will he be penalized?”
Guru response: If you are not sure how long books are needed (or your son is perhaps prone to procrastination or losing things), you may consider buying instead of renting. Most rental programs have a process by which you can extend the rental term or purchase the book, but there is of course a fee. Each process is different and costs vary. Check the renter’s website for details.

Issue: “What if he finds a cheaper price, will you match it?”
Guru response: I am not a bookseller, rather an advisor. The site that I recommend, CampusBooks.com, is not a bookseller but a price-comparison search tool. Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen any bookseller sites that match prices unless you are buying new books. My suggestion is that you do your research and pay attention. Sometimes books get more expensive as you get closer to school start dates, not cheaper though because as good used books are sold, they can’t be replaced and supply becomes limited.

Issue: “What if we can send you more books we have or come across?”
Guru response: Any book you have may have what is called buyback value. I suggest you use a buyback price-comparison engine (again, CampusBooks.com can help) or contact a local bookstore to determine if the books have any value.

Issue: “What if he doesn’t know what books he needs until the last minute, can he get them in time for the start of school?”
Guru response: This is a very common question. If the book is needed quickly, purchase from a source that offers expedited shipping. Another option is to purchase from a source that instantly delivers a digital copy (or the first chapter) when you rent a book and are waiting for it to arrive. If you are buying books the first week of school, time is of the essence.

I know that many of my readers are also industry insiders so I encourage you to share your thoughts on any of the questions posted.

Have another question for the Textbook Guru?  Just ask!

eBooks Platform Reviews: The Wrap-Up Show!

As we get deeper into summer, I wanted to spend a moment and recap the eBooks platform reviews we’ve covered over the past six months. This project stems from a discussion I was having about eBooks and the different reader technology on the market. While speaking about each provider, I realized that I had never purchased a book, downloaded it, and tried it, I’d only read hardware specs and handled some devices, but I’d never really knuckled down with a text from start to finish. How could I speak about the different products being used if I hadn’t tried them myself?

First, I tried to think of who the major players were specific to the college textbook space. Then for each book, I wanted to experience it as a student. That said, I never asked for a free copy and instead I went to the company’s website or app, selected a book, and downloaded. While exploring each book, I tried to pay particular attention to the features that were touted by the provider so that I could comment on them (good or bad). By trying to place my mind inside the mind of a student, I was able to look at each book and its overall application in the college setting.

The eBook platforms I covered include:
Chegg
CourseSmart
iBook
iBooks Publishing
Inkling
Kindle
Kno

I was never looking to pick a winner and that remains the case in my approach. Each platform has unique positive and negative features. The one thing that really surprised me was the primitive social features integrated into the eBooks and the lack of thinking “off the page.” The truth is that eBooks have a long way to go. What we have today begins to engage the student in a new way but all the platforms are simply an extension of the physical book. While features such as video, 3D, note cards, highlighting, and more are currently standard features, the book is still stuck in its “chapter” format (that is, it’s a digital version of a print book with a few interactive features that don’t rely on pen-and-paper but mimic them). Until the textbook is truly unbound and digital courses are created from scratch, we will be limited by the small-scale book-mimicry advancements we can make in eBooks.

Meet Chegg – The College Hub

Over the past three years, both education insiders and venture capitalists have watched with interest as Chegg has grown and developed. In 2010, the company raised more than $140 million, spending an estimated $50 million of that money on six acquisitions over a two year time period. But where was the textbook-rentals company going?

When Chegg leapt onto the scene and pioneered the textbook-rental market, the company effectively changed the market, and reports now estimate that rentals represent 15-20% of all textbook purchases. With new players entering the field, the ability to grow a company through this channel was slowly closing and this young company had to find a way to reinvent itself.

The addition of Dan Rosenweig, he of Yahoo! and Guitar Hero, set to transform the company from a one-trick rental pony to a college hub assisting students with scheduling classes, finding tutors, sourcing affordable textbooks, completing difficult assignments, and more. Beginning this week, students will get a look into the new Chegg.com.

The release started with an article in Business Week  and was followed up with a personal invitation from Mr. Rosenweig to all current Chegg customers in the Chegg Salad email newsletter. It’s too early to tell if students will embrace the Facebook-like cloud and social features that allow them to store all their course information in one single place, but the move is significant as it positions Chegg to provide all the services form the companies they have acquired all in one single location.

A look back at past posts on Chegg
eBook Review: Chegg
What Going on At Chegg
Chegg Addresses Final Pieces to the Puzzle
Chegg Makes Big Moves to Reposition Itself

Access to Good Grades: a New Attempt to Protect Copyright (and Profits)

If Joseph Henry Vogel  gets his recently approved patent into use, students can only fully participate in courses when they buy an online access code that allows them to use the course book and other online content.

Vogel believes his patent  aims to stop the “infringing” behavior of students sharing textbooks with each other. He also thinks that piracy, textbook sharing and textbook reselling, is a threat to the publishing business. Now I hope that Mr. Vogel didn’t spend a lot of time coming up with this theory, which everyone already knows to be true (and this is why publishers come out with new editions so often, in order to render used editions obsolete and create false demand for their products rather than product sold and shared without them).

But what Vogel is doing is about more than the used-book market. He is implying criminal behavior by students and abetting by professors: “Professors are increasingly turning a blind eye when students appear in class with photocopied pages. Others facilitate piracy by placing texts in the library reserve where they can be photocopied,” Vogel writes. What he fails to mention is the cost of learning materials that is at the root of the issue, also that there is a big difference between cost-conscious students using books in the library or sharing with a roommate and those scanning and selling PDFs or posting and downloading torrents. How does one not punish library users while trying to curtail bootleg and copied editions? Where is the line and who is Vogel to draw it? And as we have seen time and time again with the music industry and copying DVDs and P2P torrents, there will always be an innovative workaround or crack. Is adding another layer of fees the answer? Let’s look at the patent and the idea behind it.

Vogel’s patent is a simple idea; students sign up for a course and as part of that course they must participate in a Web-based discussion. This activity counts towards their final grade and can only be accessed through a special code given to the student upon purchase of the textbook.

Vogel’s idea is simple and seems almost common sense and he is not the first to think of this. The idea of access codes have been around for a number of years. If you want to take a course with InfoTrac, you need the course code. We have also seen the growth of courses such as MyMathLabs, courses that require purchase and activation.

The system differs as it tries to ensure that students will not get a good grade with a pirated textbook or by borrowing a textbook from a library or friend. His system doesn’t completely get away from used books as students can often buy an access code separately. Vogel’s system ensures that publishers get income from textbook sales after the initial new book is sold.

However crazy this sounds, it is the future of publishing. As we unbound the textbook , publishers will create tools and programs to put up pay-to-play hurdles. The main content will become free and the student will no longer pay for a textbook so much as access to course materials and digital platforms that are an extension of the class and require a purchased code.

*Quotes and content for this story were provided from: http://torrentfreak.com/anti-piracy-patent-prevents-students-from-sharing-books-120610/

Why pay again, for information you’ve already paid for?

Currently, government funded research can be very costly to access. Sometimes thousands of dollars a year for access to a single journal. Should the public have to pay for this information that our tax dollars have funded? Should universities have to pay millions of dollars a year to access this information?

A growing number of people don’t think so.

The folks at access2research.org started a petition on the whitehouse.gov petition website to support making this taxpayer funded information freely available. If they reach 25,000 signatures before June 19, 2012, then the petition will be placed in the Executive Office of the President for integration into policy. They now have more than 25,000 signatures. They would like to have many many more to have more clout.

It seems like this issue would be a no brainer. However, a small group of publishers currently make very significant profits from this information. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley – own the majority of the world’s more than 20,000 academic journals and account for about 42% of all journal articles published.

This is an issue that is both local and global. In England, it’s recently become a hot issue. The latest wave started with a frustrated blogpost by an English mathematician, Tim Gowers. He touched a nerve, and some researchers and scientists are now refusing to do peer reviews or do editorial reviews for the companies that are profiting from this.

The web, and digital media, now allow for information to freely flow like never before.

Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London, says that scientists need to establish a new structure with publishers that reflects the changes that have occurred because of the web. He says, “for a long time, we’ve been taken for a ride and it’s got ridiculous”. Curry has decided to stop reviewing for Elsevier and has quit as an academic editor on an Elsevier journal.

The issue is not only about cost. Currently, publishers have control over how most of this information gets distributed. Change, however, is in the wind. ArXiv.org is an established site where one can freely post and access research and information. In the world of physics, most research appears here, before it goes on to scientific journals.
David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, said, “To be made effective, scholarly information has to be made as widely available as possible. We’ve seen an increasing amount of evidence that shows that, if we move to an open-access world, there are benefits not just to the scientific process itself but also wider economic benefits.”*

*Quotes and reference taken from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/apr/09/frustrated-blogpost-boycott-scientific-journals

eBook Review: iBooks Publishing

It’s time for another Textbook Guru eBook review, but as promised in my last article, this time we’re changing it up and reviewing the flip side of eBooks, publishing. Today we are taking a look at the iBooks platform from the perspective of a self publishing author. If you’d like to read up on the iBooks platform from the user end, take a quick look at our iBooks review here.

Before I get into the iBooks publishing process, I must note that there are a wealth of guides available that have more specific detail than I’ll be able to provide here. I should also mention that a large portion of these guides describe what seems to be the ‘PC’ version of epublishing. To publish in iBooks you need the ‘Mac’ version. I started down the PC route, using a third party site called Lulu to prep my article as a .epup file. This is the file format that many eReaders, including Kindle and Nook accept. iBooks prefers the proprietary .ibooks file format, which can only be created using the iBooks Author program.

So, after scrapping my .epub file, I started fresh with iBooks Author, which I found to be simpler to use than the Lulu platform, although the steps were largely the same. For starters, if your book has chapters, you must insert chapter breaks that iBooks can recognize or risk having your book rejected during the uploading process. From what I’ve read, this is a step that a lot of authors stumble on and end up getting their books rejected.

Rather than simply publishing your text like a pdf, you can also take advantage of the versatility of eBooks by adding interactive features like video, clickable links to the web and sliding photo galleries. I took advantage of an iBooks option called ‘media introduction’ which allows you to embed a video that will play before the reader gets to the cover. This is great for introducing your book with a little added context or a personal message from the author.

As soon as you have your formatted .ibooks file, you are ready to begin the publishing process. To publish to iBooks you need to create an iTunes Connect account and download iTunes Producer, Apple’s distribution software. Through iTunes Producer you can upload your book to sell or for free, and manage the back end of your book selling career with analytic tools.

When you’ve created your account and loaded iTunes Producer, you will go through a lengthy but thorough uploading process, similar to the one you went through to prep the file. You will be asked all the pertinent questions such as Author name, what categories iBooks should file your book under and an ISBN if you have one. This is also the stage in which you will actually upload your .ibooks file and your custom cover image.

iBooks is very picky and it’s likely you’re upload will have several errors to fix before it is complete. I had to go back and change information about my upload 5 times before I was able to finish the upload successfully. After uploaded your book will enter an approval process with Apple before it will actually start showing in searches within the iBooks store or on iTunes.

If everything goes smoothly, the upload process will take about an hour from word doc to .ibooks to publishing, however I did several hours of research and fighting technical problems with installing iTunes Producer). For something as simple as the free article I uploaded, the publishing process seems lengthy, but actually it’s just very thorough, which is important both to you and Apple (legally) if you intend to sell your book. Frankly, if I were publishing a book I intended to profit from, this process is extremely easy and quick compared to the traditional route of pitching to publishing companies.

However, after your ebook has been uploaded, it still needs to pass Apple’s approval process. Unfortunately my ebook file was rejected for ‘insufficient length or functionality.’ After following up with iBooks support, I was encouraged to ‘review your book concept and evaluate whether you can incorporate functionality, content, or both to enhance the user experience.” As you may have guessed, the problem for me here is that my article isn’t going to get any longer and it seems the video introduction, image sliders and live links I incorporated did not provide enough ‘functionality.’

Unsatisfied with this answer, I pressed iBooks support for more details, including what the minimum length or functionality is that I am falling short of. Unfortunately their support team was unhelpful, stating that they do not have a ‘published requirement regarding the minimum length of functionality of a book’ yet still asking me to review my book concept for length and functionality and resubmit. I had hoped that having a real human review my book would show them that my book has all the length and functionality it needs to serve it’s purpose, which is to show how easy it is to publish on iBooks.

So, rather than linking to iTunes for you all to download my free eBook, I can only offer you a PDF version of what it would have looked like in iBooks. I believe it was more the length than the functionality of my ebook that caused me trouble. Since it is not very likely that a self publishing author would bother to write a book as short as my article, I imagine other authors will have an easier time passing Apple’s approval process.

Mitt Romney’s Education Plan

I’m trying not to insert any political views into my posts during this tense build-up to the Presidential election, which is difficult given that education and funding for it and the value and cost of college is a big topic and one where the candidates differ significantly. That said, I will tread lightly but honestly as I would be remiss not to address the Romney education plan as was quietly released in late May.

The big change that the GOP candidate offers in “A Chance for Every Child” is the expansion of parental choice. Other topics include investment in innovation and rewarding teachers for their results instead of their tenure.

This plan is a shift for the Republican party, a shift away from the No Child Left Behind Act, which has widely been considered (by both sides of the aisle) a failed approach to improving education quality and accessibility. And while I do like how Romney offers a plan to attract and retain quality teachers, the overall plan seems a bit of stretch.

As with anything in politics, the plan is designed to show the difference between the two political parties and fuel the larger debate about the role government should have in our lives. As members of the education space, this is a must read for us as it will affect us significantly.

What are your thoughts on his plan?

Walking for a Cause

I’d like to take off my Textbook Guru hat for this post and share something as just Jeff, something I found so inspiring and for which I am so proud of my wife Hillary. This weekend, Hillary met a huge goal and raised money for a good cause. In November 2011, her sister Michelle was diagnosed with breast cancer. Michelle was doing a regular self-exam when she noticed something that concerned her and did indeed turn out to be cancer. The past six months have been filled with doctor’s visits, surgery, chemotherapy, and more. As part of the good news I share in this post about Hillary’s efforts, I am also pleased to share that Michelle finished chemo yesterday and we are crossing our fingers that the cancer has been eradicated.

As Hillary saw the amazing support Michelle received from family and friends, she decided that she wanted to do something in addition to helping Michelle with the home and kids. Hillary signed up for the AVON Walk for Breast Cancer. This walk is a two-day 39-mile challenge where participants walk 26 miles the first day and 13 miles the second (so a marathon one day followed by a half-marathon the next). The training wasn’t easy but in comparison to what her sister was going through Hillary never complained and she just kept pushing to face the challenge and conquer it.

This past weekend was the walk and Hillary completed it. My wife is a mother, a doctor, a devoted sister and daughter and friend. She has accomplished a great deal in her life and career and I am always proud of all she has done and continues to do (including putting up with me). However, as her husband, I can’t say that I have ever been more impressed by and proud of Hill than I am now for what she has done for Michelle and the all-too-many women coping with a terrible disease that takes such a toll.

It was truly amazing to watch Hillary set to it, tackle it, and achieve it all for something she felt so passionately about. In addition to completing the walk, Hillary was able to raise more than $4,000  for breast-cancer research. The Chicago walk raised $6.3 million!

Congratulations to Hillary, her team, and the thousands of other participants who met their goals and raised money for a worthwhile cause. If you find yourself looking to make a difference, why not find a cause you’re passionate about and give a bit of yourself to help others in need? I guarantee that you’ll never feel more love and support and pride knowing that you are taking time out to work for change.

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